Tandem: A Tale Of Shadows doesn’t waste much time getting going. In a brief intro sequence we meet 10-year-old Emma, a resident of Victorian London who fancies herself as a detective.
She’s off to try and solve the mysterious disappearance of one Thomas Kane, the son of an illusionist family that lives in an old mansion. On her way to the house, she encounters an animated teddy bear called Fenton (Oh Jesus Christ!) who falls off a stagecoach heading in the same direction. The pair team up to investigate.
At this point, I expected Tandem to be character driven, with the relationship between Emma and Fenton developing as they form a daring duo of amateur sleuths. In fact, it’s a bare-bones puzzle game, pure and simple, with occasional brief cutscenes serving merely to introduce new environments or adversaries. By the time I reached its strangely abrupt ending, I knew nothing more about Emma or the bear, and it seems unlikely I ever will.
One reason for the lack of further characterisation is clearly budget. It’s not unfair to say of Tandem’s cinematics that no expense has been spent – Emma is barely animated and is voiced like she belongs in a PS1 game. It’s actually quite jarring to see in 2021, enough to make me wonder if the plug was pulled on a more ambitious narrative late in development.
Still, it doesn’t seem to be a major problem at first, and arguably it’s a blessing that Tandem gets to focus more on the core of its experience – puzzles – without a lot of fluff and stuffing around it. And thankfully, the in-game visuals are of higher quality, with some detailed and vibrant rooms. The opening area is littered with macabre carousels and marionettes, for example, while the kitchen is full of delicious looking cakes and cookies. All pleasingly colourful environments for Emma and Fenton to work through from their zoomed-out top-down perspective.
Or should that be a side-on perspective? Because the twist in Tandem is that you get to look at each scene in two very different ways. Emma and the enchanted Fenton are split up and you switch control between the two. Yet while Emma walks the halls and you stare down on her from above, Fenton obeys his own personal laws of gravity, which anchor him to the walls. Playing as Fenton is thus more like a side-scrolling platform game.
The aim, as with any dual character puzzler, is to alternate between the two, using each one to open up paths for the other. The range of actions they can perform are quite basic – Emma can run and pick up keys, Fenton can jump, and both can pull levers or stand on switches. But also, Emma carries a lantern, and Fenton can walk on shadows like they were solid ground. So something as simple as standing Emma on one side of a block of scenery will cast a handy slope of shade for Fenton to ascend.
Over five themed areas, each split into a series of smaller levels, Tandem gets plenty of mileage from these foundations. Each area of course has its own unique challenges. For example, in the boiler room, Emma must turn valves to fill pipes with oil that Fenton can run along. Or in the greenhouse, bathing different kinds of plants in light will cause them to blossom or wither, helping or hindering your progress. Often there’s an interesting tension in these features, as what’s good for one character blocks the other. If Emma runs through a pool of oil it will extinguish her lantern, for instance, so she needs to drain it, but Fenton must use the same pool to reach higher ground.
Indeed, the way Tandem uses its furniture and architecture to create challenges for the different perspectives is often quietly impressive. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a fudge, as killer spikes magically appear in Fenton’s sections to keep him on designated paths. But, say, navigating a maze as Emma, then switching to Fenton and having to re-evaluate the section as a platform challenge highlights some smart design.
The lighting mechanic is well-exploited, too. In some stages, Emma is robbed of her lantern and has to make do with whatever lights she can switch on and push around in the vicinity. Sometimes there are too many light sources, so the shadows cast by one light become diluted by another, rendering them useless for Fenton. Or sometimes intersections of light split the blocks of darkness you’ve created, like when bars on a window create divided segments that Fenton has to jump between.
Yet despite the proficiency and playfulness on display in Tandem, it never attains the sense of genius the best puzzle games inspire. Although I haven’t played anything quite like it before, each of its main elements was familiar. The perspective-shifting is merely a twist on some well-rehearsed dual character routines. And even creating platforms from shadows isn’t entirely new, let alone the various combinations of keys, trolleys and switches.
Perhaps in part because of that familiarity, none of the puzzles felt truly devious or tough to solve. True, I did get stumped on a handful of occasions for five minutes or so, but usually because I’d failed to notice a lever or alternative passage. The only point I did get hit a wall for a while was in a misjudged chase sequence at the end of one area, which was more down to Emma’s sluggish movement.
Other than that, frustrations were few, not least due to some thoughtful quality of life features – you can jump around the levels in an area in any order, and don’t have to complete them all to advance to the next. That’s all in line with Tandem’s neat and careful design. But ultimately all it adds up to is a procession of moderately engaging puzzles that fall at regular intervals over the four or five hours it takes to see through.
To avoid feeling quite so lean and austere, perhaps Tandem needed more from its characters after all. Their muted presence is the real mystery that’s left unsolved.
Tandem is built on solid foundations and provides a series of neat and carefully designed puzzles, yet never builds into anything truly inspired.
- The perspective shifting mechanic is well implemented
- Puzzles based on light and shadow are clever
- Each area offers different challenges
- The presentation is strangely sparse
- None of the puzzles are really taxing